Book 1: Traitor's Blade

March 2014

Book 1: Traitor's Blade

Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats. Trained in the fighting arts and the laws of Tristia, the Greatcoats are travelling Magisters upholding King's Law. They are heroes. Or at least they were, until they stood aside while the Dukes took the kingdom, and impaled their King's head on a spike.

Now Tristia is on the verge of collapse and the barbarians are sniffing at the borders. The Dukes bring chaos to the land, while the Greatcoats are scattered far and wide, reviled as traitors, their legendary coats in tatters. All they have left are the promises they made to King Paelis, to carry out one final mission.

But if they have any hope of fulfilling the King's dream, the divided Greatcoats must reunite, or they will also have to stand aside as they watch their world burn...

Book 2: Knight's Shadow

March 2015

Book 2: Knight's Shadow

The idealistic young King Paelis is dead and the Greatcoats - legendary travelling magistrates who brought justice to the Kingdom - have been branded as traitors. But just before his head was impaled on a spike, the King swore each of his hundred and forty-four Greatcoats to a different mission.

Falcio Val Mond, First Cantor, with the help of fellow Greatcoats Kest and Brasti, has completed his King's final task: he has found his Charoites - well, one at least, and she was not quite what they expected. Now they must protect the girl from the many who would see her dead, and place her on the throne of a lawless kingdom. That would be simple enough, if it weren't for the Daishini, an equally legendary band of assassins, getting in their way, not to forget the Dukes who are determined to hold on to their fractured Kingdoms, or the fact that the heir to the throne is only thirteen years old. Oh, and the poison that is slowly killing Falcio.

Book 3: Saint's Blood

April 2016

Book 3: Saint's Blood (April 2016)

How do you kill a Saint?

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they've started with a friend.

The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors - a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he'll still have to face him in battle.

And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.


In Progress

Spellslinger (January 2017)

There are three things that earn you a man’s name among the Jan’Tep. The first is to demonstrate the strength to defend your family. The second is to prove you can perform the high magic that defines our people. The third is surviving your fifteenth year. Kellen is just a few weeks shy of his birthday and he's about to learn that he won't be doing any of those things.

Spellslinger is fantasy adventure with a Western flavour and the occasional talking raccoon.

  • The Greatcoats Are Coming!-image

The Greatcoats Are Coming!

After being shortlisted for both the 2014 Gemmell Awards for Best Fantasy Debut and the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fantasy, the acclaimed swashbuckling adventures of the Greatcoats continues with Saint's Blood, arriving in stores on April 7th, 2016.

About Sebastien

About Sebastien

Sebastien de Castell writes novels about swashbuckling fantasy and the occasional weird detective. His books are published in English, German, French and, quite to his surprise, one even came out in Bulgarian.
He currently lives in The Netherlands with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats.

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Current Project

Saint's Blood, book 3 of the series, is done! Now comes all the editing...

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Short Version-image

Short Version

Sebastien de Castell writes novels about swashbuckling heroes and unconventional detectives who get their asses handed to them.

Find out more...

About Sebastien

A background in sword choreography doomed Sebastien to write books about swashbuckling heroes who get their asses handed to them. Occasionally there's a talking raccoon with a propensity for blackmail and murder thrown in for good measure.

You can reach him at his first name @ decastell dot com.

Acclaim For Traitor's Blade

"An all-round brilliant fantasy debut, and one of the best I’ve read in a decade."
Civilian Reader - February 14th, 2014

"Traitor's Blade is the first 'new' fantasy of 2014 that met and even exceeded my expectations and for the reasons above takes its place in my top 25 of the year to date. "
Fantasy Book Critic - February 24th, 2014

"I adored these characters. I cannot wait for the sequel."
The BiblioSanctum - February 19th, 2014

"Some books you can’t put down. This one won’t even let you try; it whirls you along in a wild dance of fights, treachery, and jaw-dropping surprises."
Dave Duncan, award-winning author of King of Swords

Blood Strands

A Thriller

A Little More...

Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.

Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats.

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Eight Book Deal With Bonnier

Yes, the rumours are true: this year I signed an eight-book deal with Bonnier Publishing. It’s an exciting development because, well, it means I have a job for another four years! The first six books will be the Spellslinger series which will come out under the Hot Key imprint.


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Cover for Saint’s Blood Released

Jo Fletcher Books just released the cover for Saint’s Blood. It’s a beauty! The skillful Nicola Budd kept the process on track efficiently while still letting me provide creative input–something that isn’t always easy to get as an author. I’m really delighted with it. What do you think? Do you have a favourite Greatcoats cover? Here’s the whole set of UK covers.


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South Africa

My wife and I visited South Africa in August and did all the things one does: walked with lions, met elephants and assorted other animals, and I bungee jumped for the first time. Lots of wonderful things to do in South Africa. Of course, I spent the first week in the hotel room re-writing the same 5000 words of Saint’s Blood over and over again while my wife was at an International library conference.


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Could A Musketeer Win A Duel Against A Ninja?

Why do we want to know about musketeers and ninjas?

There are three questions which have plagued mankind since time immemorial. The first two deal with uninteresting subjects like world peace and macro-economics and will thus never again be referred to in this article. The third, ah, yes, the third, however, is of vital importance: Could a musketeer defeat a ninja in a duel?

Yes, I know, at first glance this might not appear to be a particularly important question, but the editors of a particular science fiction blog assured me that the future of humankind depended upon its outcome. In order to do my part for humanity, I agreed to write this terrible, terrible article, which, in fact, never got published.

No, really, why did they ask you to write about this?

Traitor's Blade French Edition

Traitor’s Blade French Edition

I wrote a fantasy novel called Traitor’s Blade in which there is a scene where a sword-wielding magistrate called a Greatcoat (kind of like a musketeer but not really) is forced to duel two Dashini Assassins (sort of like ninjas only not ninjas.) This, I am told, makes it my duty to evaluate the historical record to assess whether a musketeer or a ninja would prevail in an actual duel.

And how does this qualify you to write this article?

Weren’t you paying attention? I wrote a novel. A whole book. It was, like, a lot of work. There are pages and pages of words. Many of the words are things like “sword” and “thrust” and “parried.” Still not convinced? I also used to choreograph sword fights for the theatre! A-ha! That got you, didn’t it?

Odd, you still don’t look reassured as to my qualifications. Well, let me put your fears to rest. In accordance with the high journalistic standards expected of an article of this nature, I have enlisted the aid of two fictional characters (we couldn’t afford real experts) which I invented myself (we also couldn’t afford licensing fees or a copyright lawyer.) Thus in exploring the major dimensions of the duel in question, I will at times defer to Armand, member of the Les Mousquetaires de la Maison Militaire du Roi de France (a.k.a. “The Musketeers”) and to Hiroshi of the…hum…Hiroshi is pointing a rather deadly blade in a manner which seems to indicate that he’d prefer I not discuss his exact affiliations (a.k.a. “The Ninjas”)

Okay, fine. Get on with it.

Venice, Italy-February 18, 2012:Environmental portrait of a person disguised as an old time French musketeer posing for tourists in Venice during The Carnival days.

Our Musketeer

Armand: This reader makes rather impertinent statements. I’m tempted to teach him some manners!

Hiroshi: You waste your time. The reader is already dead, he simply doesn’t know it yet.

ninja assasin hold katana samurai old martial weapon swordat night with city lights in background

The ninja refused to be photographed

Umm..the reader is just a fictional construct I created to ask questions. You’re fictional, too, so why am I responding…ah, the hell with it, let’s get started.

The Weapons

The classic image of the musketeer is of the dashing moustachioed figure in the fleur-de-lis tabard brandishing a single rapier (as opposed to, say, a musket.) The rapier was indeed the sword of preference at the time for duelling but it was also common to carry an off-hand weapon such as a main-gauche (a type of dagger) or a buckler (a small shield.)

The ninja had a broad selection of weapons both conventional and esoteric, from darts and shuriken (throwing stars) to caltrops, blow darts, and small eggshells filled with blinding powder. Interesting thing about the blinding powder—

Hiroshi: speak another word and your life is forfeit.

Umm…right, let’s move on.

Armand: You make it sound as if the ninja had a superior assortment of weapons but a well-trained duellist might also, when the need arose, defend himself with a pair of rapiers, rapier and cloak, or even rapier and lantern.

Hiroshi: Next you’ll tell us you fought with rapier and housecat when the need arose.

Armand: Better a housecat than some of those preposterous toys you toss about.

A duel, that is, a fight in which both opponents are fighting with declared weapons within the confines of an agreed-upon space, is likely to come down to swords, in this case, the rapier versus the katana. John Clements wrote an excellent article years ago on the various considerations in assessing whether a katana would defeat a rapier in combat or vice-versa (you can still read it here )

Rapier HorizontalNow, while we know that the primary duelling weapon in Europe during the time in which musketeers were employed was the rapier, but it’s an open question as to which sword was most common for the ninja. For the purposes of this argument, I’m going to make the assumption that the classic Japanese katana was the primary bladed weapon of the ninja, rather than the shorter, straighter ninjatō, which may or may not have been a weapon of the period.katana

One of the most common debates amongst sword enthusiasts is whether a rapier fighter could defeat a samurai wielding a katana. The Katana is, lets face it, the finest bladed weapon ever devised. There have been tests showing it doing better against armour than a European broadsword – which is a heavier weapon designed to rupture armour. The katana is also lightning fast.

Hiroshi: Our steel is like our souls, sharper and better tempered than the weak fabric of lesser men.

Armand: I must protest this outrageous—

Give me a second. I’ll get to the rapier…

The katana is still a cutting weapon whereas a duel usually gets down to who puts the pointy end of the weapon into the other guy first. The rapier is a longer weapon, and a trained duellist would have developed an almost preternatural awareness of distance and reach.

Armand: Ah, you see? Clearly the rapier is the superior weapon just as the musketeer is the superior fighter.

Hiroshi: What good will your weapon do you when your eyes are blinded by my powders?

Ah, yes, that brings us to…

The Techniques

As expert assassins, we can safely assume the ninja would have a wide range of means of distracting and disorienting an opponent even during a duel in broad daylight.

Armand: Dishonourable! This is outrageous—

On the other hand, let’s remember that the musketeer was trained and experienced in dealing with the chaos of a battlefield, with weapons firing all around and opponents on all sides. Furthermore, the expected context for a ninja is one of stealth attacks and striking before the opponent even knew they were there. The ninja would likely seek out the most advantageous position from which to make the first, decisive blow.

Hiroshi: The fat fool would be dead long before the duel had even begun.

Uhm…actually, it’s in the very nature of a duel that both parties would have to be aware of each other, begin from equally advantageous positions, and have to wait until the signal was given for the fight to begin.

The Approach

Assuming two opponents of roughly equal skill in their respective arts, each forced to fight with a declared weapon and beginning on even terrain—

Hiroshi: I would never agree to such an outrageous—

Armand: Ah, so you are scared. Do you wish to withdraw?

Hiroshi: I…accept the terms of combat.

It’s very likely that the musketeer will seek to gauge his opponent’s strengths, using the greater length of the rapier to keep distance between the two while feinting to draw a wasted attack.

Hiroshi: My katana is faster.

Armand: Perhaps, but the cutting movement of your katana requires that the blade travel much farther than the thrust of my rapier.

This is the crux of the matter: in a fight along straight lines the advantage immediately goes to the longest and fastest weapon. The ninja would need to bridge the distance between himself and the musketeer, and would therefore seek to change the terrain – to put the musketeer off-balance or distract him long enough to gain the single second required to bridge the distance.

Okay, so who would win?

In my own novel, Traitor’s Blade, Falcio’s ultimate victory over the ninja-like Dashini assassins comes from a combination of factors. First, he’s studied many of the tricks they use and has prepared for them. Second, he uses the longer reach of the rapiers to good advantage, keeping just out of reach of the assassin’s blades. Third, he finds a way to use the Dashini’s own tricks against them: distracting them for the brief instant required to lunge with both rapiers extended, piercing their bellies and taking them out of the fight.

Although of course the world never saw, nor will it ever see, a musketeer duel a ninja, it’s highly likely that the musketeer, with the greater reach of his weapon and the fact that his fighting style is highly tuned to the spacial and temporal dynamics of a classical duel would be the victor. However what this really shows is that the effectiveness of weapons and martial techniques is dependent on their context. A musketeer would likely never survive an ambush from a ninja nor have the training to withstand an assassination attempt.

We have a tendency of assuming that there must be one ‘greatest’ style of martial arts and one ‘greatest sword’. We keep looking for the most daring or the most skilled warrior. But the outcome of combat is at least as dependent on how suited the particular weapon or technique is to the terrain and situation as it is on the quality of those weapons and techniques.

Hiroshi: This article offends me. The writer has penned his own death warrant.

Armand: Indeed. The scurrilous cur must pay the price for this slanderous screed.

Hiroshi: Then we are agreed.

Armand: Yes! At last, a meeting of the minds! However there is one small problem.

Hiroshi: Which is?

Armand: We must decide who gets to kill him first!

Hiroshi: Perhaps a duel to settle the matter…



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Turmoil & Tribulation in Series Fantasy: Why Authors Torment Your Favourite Characters

Note: I originally wrote this for LizLovesBooks.com in 2015

I slammed down my copy of George R. R. Martin’s Storm of Swords on top of the bed. It bounced. “That son of a—”
“Please stop yelling at the book,” my wife said, nose-deep in a different, less contentious novel. “The author can’t hear you.”
“He’s killed off another of my favourite characters,” I complained.
“Yes, well, that’s terrible of him.”
I took in a deep breath—a necessary preparation for the lengthy speech I was about to deliver—“What’s worse, I didn’t even like that character in the first place! But then damned George R.R. Martin went and made me like the character and then boom! Killed ‘em off right in front of me.”

I imagine some variation of my rant has been repeated by fans of A Song Of Ice and Fire the world over, always ending with the same question: why do authors insist on tormenting and even murdering our favourite characters?

The Need for Escalating Failures

Portrait of romantic woman at fairy forest

Drama = character in jeopardy

Think of some of your favourite literary characters. What is it about them that you love? I don’t mean the simple, surface attributes like being witty or clever or attractive. I mean the things that will keep you reading page after page to find out what happens to them. Is it their willingness to sacrifice everything for love? Their ability to stand up to even the worst bullies? Whatever those qualities are, chances are they can only really be seen when the character is facing serious adversity.

But can a character who never fails really be brave or determined? How can we find a character’s inner strength compelling unless we’ve first seen them fail? Falcio val Mond, the protagonist of Traitor’s Blade, starts the novel having already failed many of the most important people in his life. His determination to follow his ideals is only interesting because of the way those ideals have failed him in the past. It’s only through watching the character lose—and lose big–that we can rejoice when he finally succeeds.

But what happens after that final victory when we move onto the next book in the series? Will you, as a reader, really be as emotionally engaged if the next failure the protagonist experiences is no worse than the ones you’ve already seen them overcome in the previous book? The answer, of course, is no. And this means that things have to get harder. The emotional stakes have to get bigger, and the failures have to get worse.

The Need for Increasing Torment

armored evil creature in catedral

Things have to get worse before they can get better.

The only people who enjoy tormenting the things they love are psychopaths and writers. In fact, the term ‘enjoy’ is probably a bit off here. I suppose it’s more that the writer feels they have a duty to torment their characters. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if this makes writers better or worse than psychopaths…

There’s a long sequence of scenes that take place in Knight’s Shadow which will, I suspect, shock a few people. I didn’t write them to be shocking, it’s just that, well, that’s how they turned out. See, if you like Falcio as a character then it’s at least in part because you feel a connection to his ideals. But at the root of ideals are real experiences—often terrible ones—that shape our ideas about the world. To get to the absolute core of Falcio, I needed to strip him down to the point where there was nothing left except that first, fundamental piece of him that couldn’t be taken away.

So while failures are a crucial part of the plot, torment—the internal pain that comes as a result of those failures—is vital for character. This, too, becomes more difficult with a sequel. If your beloved character has emerged from his first adventures stronger than before, then the internal pain they experience has to be commensurately higher the next time around.

The Necessity of Death

illustration of anubis egyptian god

Anubis is the writer’s friend.

So after all that, why in the world would any author kill off a character that fans enjoy? Considering how much work it takes to make people like them in the first place, why would any writer do such a foolish thing?

The simple answer is that, at a certain point, a character has finished their journey. They no longer have a tale of their own to tell, they no longer reveal anything about the world they inhabit, and their continued presence dilutes the overall story. At that point the author is faced with a question: should I simply disappear this character (have them move, retire, or otherwise leave the stage)? Or do they have the ability to dramatically impact other characters who do have a story to tell? If it’s the latter, then some radical shift is likely required, either through death or turning towards a darker side.

As a writer, part of my job is to wring every possible ounce of dramatic potential from my characters. If that comes from them living, great. If it comes from them dying…bring on the guillotine!

Addendum: The Necessity of Life

Medieval knights

Who was I going to kill off? You’ll never know.

“So that’s why I’m going to kill him off,” I told my editor, the esteemed Jo Fletcher.
She thought about it for all of a second. “No, you damn well aren’t.”

Okay, she didn’t say it exactly that way. In fact, she never actually forbids me from killing off a character, but she has moved me away from killing off specific characters at various points in the series. The details of the conversations change but the essential question is always the same: “Have you said everything you want to say with that character?”

That, kind readers, is the one and only reason to keep a character alive: when they still have important things to say.


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When The World Is Against You: Building Fantasy Settings

Note: I originally wrote this for The Book Plank back in 2014.

Ever have one of those days when it feels as if the whole world is against you?


Well, perhaps not excellent for you but I suspect it made for a great story. Dramatic storytelling comes from conflict. As a writer and as a reader, I don’t just want the conflicts the heroes face to be against other characters. I want the world to be an opponent – the deadlier the better. I want it to a source of danger on all levels of human experience: physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual

My first step in building a fantasy world is to look for what you might call the contrasting dynamic: contrasting because it works against the needs of the main characters and dynamic because it drives all the other elements of the world. In Traitor’s Blade, I wanted to explore what happens to fundamentally heroic characters when they discover that heroism has utterly failed – that the things they believe in simply don’t work in the world around them. So while Falcio and the Greatcoats are driven by a belief in justice and decency, the nation of Tristia is fuelled by corruption and cynicism. While knights in fantasy literature are often presented as honourable and dashing, in Tristia the very notion of a knight’s honour is that anything you do by your lord’s command is righteous – no matter how heinous the act itself. Even the peasantry, whom the Greatcoats have risked their lives to protect, view the Greatcoats as cowards and traitors once the Dukes have proven their power against them.

This notion of corruption and cynicism carries through to the physics of the world as well. There is very little magic to be found in Tristia and what there is generally costs more money than decent folk could ever hope to afford. It’s also a petty sort of magic – more useful for manipulating and harming others than for healing. The gods and saints themselves, when they do appear, do so for the powerful, not the righteous. All of this makes Tristia a rather terrible place – and therefore a perfect backdrop for characters who are struggling to maintain their ideals in the face of futility and despair.

Part of why I start with the idea of a contrasting dynamic is because, unlike most hard science fiction, I don’t want physics and technology to drive culture. I want the world to reflect the underlying themes of the book, so I draw from elements within our own world to make that possible. In Traitor’s Blade, the travelling magistrates known as the Greatcoats were inspired in part by the itinerant judges of the English Middle Ages – envoys from the King who would travel a year-long circuit of towns and villages listening to cases and dispensing verdicts. Of course, in my world the Greatcoats’ situation is vastly more precarious and involves a great deal more sword fights. Never all that common in our own world, and not a characteristic of itinerant judges, the use of duelling as a means of resolving legal disputes is a critical part of the world of Traitor’s Blade – one that affects people’s ability to get justice for themselves and their families. This impacts all aspects of society and culture within the world of the story.

Whether the individual elements of the world are inspired by aspects of our own or are created out of whole cloth, they all have to fit within that contrasting dynamic identified at the outset. They all have to be physical and cultural reflections of the themes that underpin the story. In other words, the individual elements all work together so that my poor, struggling characters will feel that the whole world really is out to get them.


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The Music of Traitor’s Blade

Note: I originally wrote this for Civilian Reader back in 2014.

By far the most common question you get asked as an author is “where do your ideas come from.” Of course, my ideas come from the same places as your do: the crazy parts of your brain intersecting with the crazy parts of the world around you. Human brains are hard-wired to find patterns even when there are none and those little synaptic misfires are part of what makes us creative beings.

Now, the question I never get asked is, “where do you get your groove from?” Maybe this sounds like a silly question. After all, books don’t have a groove, do they?

Think about those big moments in a story when you’re eyes are racing across the page to find out what comes next and, if the author is doing their job, every line moving the story at the perfect speed for the action taking place. Remember back to one of those heart-rending passages where your eyes suddenly freeze on the last three words of a sentence that hold you there as the implications of an emotional turnaround hits you. That strange, almost magical timing is pacing. It’s rhythm. It’s groove. My first experiences with storytelling were as a touring musician, so I often go back to music for the inspiration in finding the right pacing for key scenes in the books I write. Here’s a few that helped put Traitor’s Blade onto the page.

Kest’s Fight Song: Mirando by Ratatat

Being a swashbuckling adventure tale, Traitor’s Blade has a lot of swordfights, battles, and other action scenes. Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are very different sorts of fighters and finding their pacing came in part by listening to songs that just seemed to match the tempos of their duelling styles.

The hardest people to fence are the ones with unusual and unpredictable timing and this odd piece of electronica has a rhythm that helped me conceive of Kest’s fluid style. There are little beats within beats and the rests between some of the notes are just the kind of stuttering style that would throw an opponent off in a swordfight.

Falcio’s Fight Song: You Know My Name by Chris Cornell

This was the song from the opening credits for Casino Royale and there’s a kind of dramatic aggression in the shifts between verse and chorus that always make me think of Falcio’s habit of thinking through the first beats of a fight and then launching into fierce attacks. It also inspired the opening beats to Falcio’s first fight in Rijou where he starts making Shiballe’s thugs anxious by repeating ‘You know my name’ over and over.

Brasti’s Fight Song: Cobra Style by Teddybears (featuring Mad Cobra)

This is an odd one musically but it works at a tempo that’s just a bit faster than rock songs normally follow. It’s also got these great bouncy moments where I always envision Brasti drawing, knocking, and firing arrows one after another. The lyrics are terribly sophisticated but, you know, neither is Brasti.

Chaotic Battle Theme: Walkie Talkie Man by Steriogram

This is my favourite everything’s-gone-to-hell song. The verse lyrics are sung too fast to make sense of and gives me the sense of three guys trying to tell each other what’s happening in the middle of a chaotic battle.

Sneaking Song: Lifting the Building by David Holmes

Originally from the Ocean’s 12 soundtrack, this bongo-fueled instrumental evokes a group of intruders sneaking their way into danger.

The Dashini Song: Baghdad by Jesse Cook

The opening has an odd combination of Spanish, Middle Eastern, and an almost cowboy showdown kind of sound to it that gives the sense of suddenly realizing you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s a sinewy woodwind playing that made me thing of the snake-like movements of the Dashini stilletto blades.

Falcio’s Last Chance for Happiness: Island in the Sun by Weezer

It was listening to this song that made me realize Falcio needed to get one last chance at happiness only to refuse it because his quest wasn’t done. The reference Ethalia makes to a small island off the coast of Baern comes from this tune.

Riding Into Battle: Count on my Love by Liz Phair

It might be a little sappy, but I can’t hear this song without imagining Falcio riding hard and fast to try to save Aline’s life.

The Mystery Song:

There’s another song that inspired a phrase used in Traitor’s Blade written by a somewhat obscure early 1990’s band known for fusing rockabilly, latin and reggae. If you find a track listing from their sole album you’ll immediately know which song it is!


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5 Tips For Fight Scenes

Note: I originally wrote this for Writer’s Digest back in 2014.

Fight scenes are dangerous territory for writers. On the surface, they seem as if they’re guaranteed to keep the reader glued to the action in the same way as they often do at the movies. In reality, though, readers tend to skip over fight scenes – skimming the long, tedious, blow-by-blow descriptions in favour of getting back to the dialogue and character-driven drama that truly engages them in the story.

My novel, Traitor’s Blade, is a swashbuckling fantasy in which fight scenes are a crucial part of the storytelling. This means having to ensure that every piece of action is vital and engaging; it means that every duel must draw the reader in and not let them go until the end. So how do you keep the pacing, flow, and more importantly, the drama moving forward with so many fights?

1. Make every fight advance the plot

No matter what you might think, violence is actually boring. Watching two hulking brutes bash at each other with clubs isn’t interesting. Only when one of the brutes is smaller, weaker, and trying desperately to stay alive long enough to let his people know that the enemy is coming does the action start to matter to the reader. But don’t just think in terms of climactic battles or killing off enemies. Sometimes the fight provides a crucial piece of information about the antagonist such as a particular type of cut they make that could explain the wounds on a victim the protagonist discovered in the previous chapter. The fight might also wound your protagonist, slowing them down in later scenes and giving you a chance to make their lives harder and therefore increase the suspense.

2. Reveal character through action

The way your protagonist fights – and when they choose to fight or walk away – tells the reader a great deal about them. Your hero might be a skilled but retiscient warrior or they could be an amateur but with a bloodthirsty streak that comes out when confronted with violence. But don’t just stop with your protagonist or their opponents. Think about what the action reveals in those watching the fight. Does the seemingly helpful mentor figure suddenly become enraptured watching the blood flow? Do the innocent bystanders just sit there or do they scramble to help? Fight scenes that reveal character are by far the most compelling ones for readers – they get to investigate your characters by seeing how they deal with violent situations, allowing you to follow that classic dictum of modern writing: show, don’t tell.

3. Your fight scenes must fulfill the promise of your book

Traitor’s Blade is a swashbuckling fantasy so every fight has to give the reader some of that sense of wonder they first encountered watching classic adventures like the old Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks films. But perhaps your genre is gritty historical fiction. If so, the last thing you want to do is break suspension of disbelief. You have to carefully ensure that the weapons and fighting styles are true to your era (note: this doesn’t mean you can’t have a longsword in the 18th Century since they were around for long periods of time after their proper era, but you can’t have King Arthur swinging a rapier around in 6th Century Britain!)

4. Make every fight unique

I read a YA fantasy recently in which almost every fight involved the main character jumping up and spinning in the air to kick opponents in the face (usually two or three.) Regardless of how unrealistic this would be (after all, realism only matters if it’s part of the promise of your book), the fact is you probably couldn’t remember one fight from another. By contrast, think of a movie like The Princess Bride, in which every fight is special – every conflict is resolved using different means, whether trickery or skill or simply iron-willed determination.

5. Let the reader choreograph the action

If you describe every action of the fight, not only will you bore the reader but your pacing and flow will fall apart. So think of your job not so much as having to meticulously choreograph the fight but rather to give the reader enough insight into the action that they can build the scene in their minds. Show them early on in the fight how each weapon moves through space—make that vivid and visceral. Make the reader feel as if they could actually pick up that weapon and defend themselves even just a little bit. Then you’re free to focus on the character’s actions and reactions—making them distinct, personal, and emotionally motivated just as you do with their words. The reader will then be able to fill in the action while you describe what your characters are saying, what they’re thinking, and what’s showing on their faces. In other words, help the reader to choreograph the fight so that you can spend your time on the drama. This also lets you vary the length of your fight scenes, which helps to keep them from becoming predictable. In Traitor’s Blade there are fights which span an entire chapter and others which are told in four lines.

Think of it this way: violence is dialogue. Make your fights into a conversation spoken with actions in which the real conflict is happening in the hearts of the characters and in which the reader themselves are helping to tell the story.


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The Sword on the Stage and the Page

Note: I originally wrote this for ScienceNow.com back in 2014.

Human beings have a complicated relationship with the sword. On the one hand, it’s an instrument of violence with a long history written in blood. Yet it also has the capacity to mesmerize us with the beauty of its varied forms and the way a blade can dance in the air. To watch a sword being skillfully wielded is to see both the brutishness and the elegance in our natures. I’ve had the fairly rare opportunity to choreograph sword fights both for the theatre and in print as part of my fantasy novel, Traitor’s Blade, and so I’m sometimes asked about the difference in working with the two different mediums.

Every choreographer and every writer has their own process for developing a fight scene, but I always start from a basic premise:

Violence is boring.

There are so many fights, stabbings, murders, and assorted forms of torture in media these days that it’s easy to confuse violence with drama. But violence isn’t any more inherently dramatic than ordering coffee. Don’t believe me? Imagine two martial artists walking into a room. Neither one has any expression on their faces. They begin fighting – punching, kicking, jumping, spinning – with speed and precision. They whirl around each other for a few minutes and then one man successfully subdues the other and breaks his neck. Do you care whether it was character A who killed B or B who killed A? Is there anything dramatic in the outcome?

6022527772_84946ba254_oNow instead imagine an elderly woman walking into a coffee shop. She stumbles along with her walker, barely able to make it from the door to the counter. The ravages of the cancer in her bones make this simple trip – one she’s done a thousand times before – the last before she will move into the hospice that will house her for the paltry remaining days of her life. The little moments of this journey – saying hello to the young man behind the counter, choosing which coffee to buy, opening her purse, making the last purchase she’ll make for herself – are the memories she’ll take with her. It’s not much, but it’s everything that’s left. But the man behind her in line is annoyed. The old woman is taking too long and he’s sick of coming into this damned coffee shop on the way to work every day only to end up being late for a meeting because of some old codger holding up the line. He starts to rush her. He’s loud and he’s angry and all this old woman wants to do is shuffle away, with her walker, away from the counter and out of the shop. Sensing she’s about to leave, the man begins to push past her with a perfunctory “excuse me.” But the old woman turns. Just in that moment she turns to this man who threatens her with nothing more than his bluster and angry words and she says “no.” The fight begins.

That emotion you’re starting to feel is driven by the drama of the situation, and your anticipation to see what comes next emerges from the second premise:

The best fights are about character, not plot.

5878897120_2002e2419f_oThe mechanisms of violence aren’t what make a fight interesting. What’s interesting about a fight scene are the stakes for the character; the way that character fights first with their own fear and only then with their opponent, and the way that individual character’s approach to fighting tells us about them.

Take the following two films: The Princess Bride and The Duelists. You’d have trouble finding two movies whose tone and style are more different. The Princess Bride is a light-hearted swashbuckling fantasy, choreographed by the incredible Bob Anderson (who worked with folks like Errol Flynn back in the day.) The Duelists is a dark, gritty Napoleonic tale based on the short story by Joseph Conrad. The fights were choreographed by William Hobbs who was instructed by director Ridley Scott to make sure the fights looked dirty and ugly and nothing like the swashbuckling of earlier films. But despite the radical differences in the fights of those films, in both cases every action tells you about the character in the fight. The way the two opponents go at it are a reflection of their personality, their fears, and their backgrounds.

We care about Wesley’s fight with Inigo in the Princess Bride because we can sense that these two men admire each other. Their fight is as much an exploration of the other’s talents as it is a duel. In fact, our sense of jeopardy comes from the fact that these two men shouldn’t have to be enemies, and yet, their situation means that one may well die at the hands of the other. Contrast this with the messy, stuttered fights between Feraud and D’Hubert in The Duelists. One man, arrogant and lusting to use violence as his way of getting back at those he believes look down on him. The other, desperate and unsure of what to do – fearing that this fight will end in either death or dishonour. The moves matter; the weapons matter; but only because they allow the audience to see inside the characters and their conflict.

FalcioOne of the reasons why I love writing Falcio (the main character in Traitor’s Blade) is because he sees each fight as a problem to be solved – he tries to intellectualize the battle and find some ingenious way to survive. But his own past sometimes comes to the fore and takes him over. In those moments, all of his skill and intellect disappear, replaced by rage and recklessness, and we realize he’s not the man he thinks he is.

Once we find the essence of the story—the character-driven tale that must be told, we move to the ways in which the stage, the screen, and the page all work very differently from one another.

Books come with an infinite budget.

Hiring and training actors and stunt professionals is an expensive business whether you’re making a movie or staging a play. Books, on the other hand, let you have as many characters fighting as you want, all for free! You also don’t have to worry about safety – kill your characters as many times as you want and then hit ‘undo’ on the keyboard and they all come back to life. That is, regrettably, not an option with actors in real life. So in movies and on stage there’s a constant push and pull between asking the question, “what action would best convey the drama of this moment in the fight?” versus, “what can we do within budget while ensuring the safety of the actors?” It’s worth pointing out that the first and most important step you need to take in protecting the actors is to ensure that the stunt choreographer or fight director is qualified and prepared. I’ve choreographer plenty of fights but I wouldn’t just jump into a project right now without serious preparation time because I’m out of practice and actors deserve to have someone with the right skills, experience, and current qualifications to take care of them.

Every medium has a different viewpoint.

8382201376_ee8b1c73b3_oOne of the most pronounced differences between the three mediums is the way in which viewpoint operates. Theatre has a single camera. Wherever you’re sitting, that’s the camera. What that really means for a choreographer is that the fight has to look as good as possible from an incredibly wide range of angles. This is very different from movies where the camera can come in close or move far away; it can take on the point of view of the hero or of the villain or of any number of bystanders. You would think that books would have the most flexible camera of all—after all, you can write from any angle you like. However in practice, the opposite is true. Shifting viewpoints within a scene in a book undercuts the dramatic tension and diminishes the reader’s engagement. Therefore the emotion can really only be understood through one set of eyes—those of the scene’s viewpoint character.

Movie and stage fights can be less realistic than those in books.

This might sound odd at first but it’s absolutely true. Imagine our heroine jumps in the air, does three backflips, tosses four swords in four different directions, and lands elegantly on her feet as each blade strikes its intended target. If you show that action on the screen, the audience’s eyes will tell them its true even if they would otherwise think it preposterous. Similarly, watching a play means engaging in a heightened suspension of disbelief—after all, we know the actors aren’t really killing each other, but we accept it because that’s part of seeing a play. In a book, however, you’re literally asking the reader to create all the action in their heads based solely on the words you put on the page. Anything that doesn’t make sense to them will look like a foggy mess in their minds. For this reason, you have to work harder to create a sense of realism in the movements and actions that you put on the page than you would on the screen.

In books, the reader is the true choreographer and you are simply their teacher.

9367909562_b43385551c_bWe experience fight scenes passively when watching them on the screen or on the stage because every part of the action is placed before us. This means you don’t need to explain a move or series of moves because the audience can see them in real time. However a book can’t describe every movement, every posture, every detail. An author who tries to do so will invariably make the experience of reading about the fight become tedious and slow precisely when the reader wants to feel caught up in the flow of the action. So fight scenes on the page require a constant search for economy, for finding things we can leave to the imagination of the reader.

The author shows us small moments of the fight—the sudden thrust of a sharp blade headed for the character’s belly or the worn wooden shield beginning to splinter under the crushing barrage of blows of a horseman’s axe. These details give us just enough grounding in the nature of the fight so that, in the very next sentence, we can be inside the character’s emotions—feeling their fear or anticipation, all the while imagining the continuation of the fight without requiring anyone telling us exactly what’s happening. That, for me, is the magic of a swordfight in a novel—when the reader ceases to be a mere bystander and, in fact, becomes the choreographer.

Let the emotional story reign supreme

The true joy of choreographing a swordfight, whether on the stage, the page, or the screen, is in turning the fight into a new language for the audience. Let the fight scene be a form of dialogue in which each character’s actions are as distinct, personal, and emotionally motivated as the words they use. Sometimes this requires considering accurate historical forms (rapiers and broadswords moved very differently from one another and throwing one at your opponent was almost never a good idea), and sometimes it means ignoring them (the hell with it – throw the broadsword if it works!) Remember that most of what we know about ‘true’ sword fighting comes from reconstructions—books and manuals that have been loosely interpreted. Furthermore, if you’ve ever watched a fencing match then you know that a true swordfight at speed is almost impossible to follow for anyone but an expert. Therefore our job when creating a fight scene isn’t to prove how smart we are but rather that we can bring the audience or reader into the story through the vehicle of the fight. Only when we have done that are we moving from being choreographers to true storytellers of the blade.


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Why I Hate Knights

Note: I originally wrote this for John Scalzi’s Whatever.com back in 2014

I hate knights.

How is it that the biggest bunch of self-involved bullies in all of European history became the most prominent heroes in fantasy literature? These are the same brutish and brutal thugs who murdered, raped, and pillaged their way across Europe and the Middle East in the name of God (thanks a lot, Pope Urban II). Which pre-Madison Avenue public relations firm managed to convince us that knights – I mean, fucking knights – were the paragons of honour and virtue in the Middle Ages?

Were there any good knights? Sure. William Marshall, sometimes called the ‘Flower of Chivalry’ was probably an alright fellow, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. The vast majority of medieval knighthood was made up of noble-born thugs whose most positive contribution to society was due to the occasional accidental death that comes from charging at each other with long sticks on horseback for the entertainment of slack-jawed yokels.

The hell with knights. I’d rather write about heroes.

That little rant is what launched me into writing Traitor’s Blade. I wanted characters that I could see myself rooting for–men and women without the advantages of wealth or military power who fought in service to an ideal rather than a particular church or nobleman or even their own personal honour. In other words, I wanted my main characters, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti, to be the opposite of knights.

I took my starting point from the justices itinerant of England’s twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These were magistrates, appointed by the King and commanded to travel from village to village to hear cases, pass judgments, and ensure verdicts were upheld. A similar phenomenon existed in the United States, especially along the frontiers. In fact, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his early law career on horseback, travelling alongside a judge (the actual term ‘circuit court’ comes from the designated routes of these wandering magistrates.)

I was fascinated by how dangerous a life being a justice itinerant might be. What happens when a baron or count decides he doesn’t like your verdict? Which way might the local knight or sheriff sway when his financial wellbeing is in the hands of the man you’re ruling against? Worst of all, what happens when the sovereign who appointed you dies? Those questions became the basis of the Greatcoats – the wandering magistrates of Traitor’s Blade who dedicate their lives to bringing justice to those living under the capricious rule of the nobility only to be disbanded when the king who appointed them is deposed and killed.

With Traitor’s Blade, I wanted to explore the struggle to keep alive an idealistic view of the law that is at odds with the very foundations of a feudal society. This meant recognizing that, while Falcio, Kest, and Brasti might be heroes to me, they wouldn’t be seen that way by the majority of the population in the world in which they live. Where the knights are admired and respected as military men in service to the will of the gods (which, miraculously, tends to align with the interests of the nobles who employ them), the Greatcoats are despised by the nobility and often reviled even by the peasantry who see them as having failed to bring the justice they promised.

Creating these anti-knights also meant thinking about tactical considerations. Where knights are designed for war, especially mounted combat, the Greatcoats are trained to be expert duellists. In a society like Tristia, the fictional country in which the novel is set, trial by combat is an idea that is ingrained into the culture. It made sense that the men and women who had to hear cases and render judgments might often need to uphold their verdict at the point of a sword. So while the knights wear heavy armour, the Greatcoats wear, well, coats – long, leather coats with thin bone plates sewn inside to provide some measure of defence against the weapons of their enemies while still being light enough to manoeuvre in for extended periods of time. This also fit with the Greatcoats’ need to travel long distances at speed and be protected from the elements. Their coats contain dozens of hidden pockets with little tricks and traps and chemicals to help them survive the dangers faced by those whose role is in direct conflict with the powerful in society.

The more time I spent envisioning the Greatcoats, the more I found myself searching for other adaptations to the way laws are administered in a corrupted feudal society. Verdicts need to be remembered in order to be upheld and a large portion of the population in a country like Tristia would be illiterate. So the Greatcoats set their rulings to the tune of songs that people know – making it easier for people to remember. Verdicts also need people willing to do what’s necessary to uphold them, and so the gold buttons on the coats could be used to pay twelve men and women who would act as a kind of long-term jury and ensure the ruling was upheld after the Greatcoat left.

The process of developing a new societal role inside of a more traditional fantasy setting was without doubt one of the most fun parts of building the world of Traitor’s Blade. I doubt that the historical justices itinerant were much like my Greatcoats, just as the knights of European history have little in common with their modern portrayals. But I like to think that there was a spark of that idealism in those who once wandered the long roads in an effort to bring the machinery of justice to those who lived far outside the protection of the courts.


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I'm reading The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. A pre-apocalyptic police procedural!



I'm also reading Plot Perfect by Paula Munier. I like her emphasis on theme as a plot's starting point.

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Fantasy Novels

Great fantasy novels give us a perspective on people and themes that bypass the baggage of our daily lives. They don't just transport us to other worlds--they help us re-enchant the one we live in. That's my goal.

Sebastien de Castell's fantasy novel "Traitor's Blade" comes out in February 2014 from Quercus (US & UK) and Penguin (Canada)

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